Florida State University’s short list of presidential applicants features an impressive array of talent vying for the job, but Tallahassee insiders say few of them are actively campaigning with the same intensity as Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
The conventional wisdom of Florida’s political “chattering class” is often wrong about the ultimate outcomes of political contests, but they are seldom wrong about the underlying evidence that informs their predictions.
In the case of the FSU hiring process, the data points driving the chatter are substantially similar to that of a political campaign, including endorsements, a letter writing campaign, and whipping and counting votes. Corcoran, a veteran of a number of campaigns of his own, both for traditional ballots as an elected official and also for the backing of his peers to win powerful leadership posts, has honed his expertise in all of those areas.
The current word around downtown lunch tables, lobby shop water coolers, and among pedestrians during chance encounters with colleagues on street corners around the capitol complex is that “the process is greased for Corcoran.” That exact phrase has been repeatedly uttered by lobbyists, political operatives and lawyers who know Corcoran well.
Whether there is any actual truth to it remains to be seen, and could easily be written off as little more than the byproduct of the Tallahassee echo chamber feeding off its own made-up rumors. In fact, one insider dismissed the talk as “typical rumor-mongering designed to make Corcoran seem inevitable.”
Much of that talk has been generated, intentionally or not, by Corcoran’s own earnestness to win the job. As has already been reported, the list of supporters who have weighed in on the matter include a virtual who’s who of FSU alumni and political personalities. The political support is also bipartisan, as evidenced by letters written by Democratic State Senators Janet Cruz and Shevrin Jones. Though neither are FSU alumni, their endorsements were undoubtedly calculated to demonstrate that Corcoran is capable of transcending politics as he pursues one of the preeminent academic leadership posts in the nation.
But if rumors, endorsements and name dropping were the only data points, then some of the other candidates for the job might rest a bit easier, secure in the knowledge that they, too, are capable of mustering similar support.
They shouldn’t take any comfort in that, because it’s just the most obvious sign of Corcoran’s effort.
Insiders who know him best say that Corcoran wouldn’t have bothered to throw his hat into the ring unless he had a viable and likely path to victory. Former colleagues and legislative staffers say that Corcoran will be meticulously prepared for his interview with the FSU board on Saturday morning, and unlike other candidates, won’t rely solely on his personal accomplishments or curriculum vitae.
Instead, Corcoran’s game plan, insiders say, has been shaped by ongoing conversations, advice and assistance from outgoing FSU president John Thrasher, who knows better than anyone else the challenges and initiatives at the forefront of the minds of both the FSU Board of Trustees and Florida State’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee.
Corcoran and Thrasher have been spotted together in public on multiple occasions over the last several months. That close relationship gives Corcoran an edge that few other applicants enjoy.
But Corcoran likely has one more ace up his sleeve: help from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. While there’s no overt evidence that DeSantis is actively pressuring search committee members to choose Corcoran, insiders point to more obvious signs, like DeSantis not reappointing Billy Buzzett to the FSU Board of Trustees, which also disqualified him from keeping his role as chairman of the presidential search committee. That move, in turn, enabled Corcoran ally Ed Burr to appoint another fellow businessman, Bob Sasser, to helm the search committee. Whether or not Buzzett was an obstacle is anyone’s guess, but Burr is rumored to be a staunch Corcoran advocate.
There are other signs of gubernatorial collaboration, too, including the pickup of two key staffers, Taryn Fenske and Alex Kelly, both of whom recently departed Corcoran’s orbit at the Department of Education to take on prominent roles inside the Executive Office of the Governor. Fenske now leads the governor’s communications team, and Kelly was Corcoran’s chief of staff and is now a deputy chief for DeSantis.
None of that proves DeSantis is actively pushing Corcoran for the job, but if Corcoran gets the nod, it would allow DeSantis to appoint a replacement at the Department of Education which opens up an entirely new chain reaction of personnel moves with significant ramifications for agency and legislative leadership roles, something that would give DeSantis some additional leverage in shaping the next legislative session and election cycle.
The final curiosity that insiders point to: the notable absence of academic leaders in the composition of the FSU Presidential Search Advisory Committee itself. While there is considerable overlap in terms of industry experience, the committee boasts five people with business backgrounds, three with medical backgrounds, two with strong legal credentials, two university employees, two students, but only a single professor, and not a single dean from the school. The composition of the committee, on the surface, at least, lends itself more toward support of someone with Corcoran’s background than a person an academia-heavy committee might favor.
The committee will interview nine short list candidates starting this Friday. Corcoran is slated to interview at 9:30am on Saturday. Two others follow him. After that, the committee is expected to recommend at least two finalists to the FSU Board of Trustees, who will deliberate and make the final decision.